Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Des bonnes façons d'apprendre le français (ou n'importe quelle langue)

I've been learning French for about three years now, and while my level still very much leaves something to be desired, it's very heartening to hear people comment on my progress. I am frequently asked how I started and how I continue to learn, so I thought I'd write up a little post about some of the tools and methods I've used - in English so as to be maximally useful (I hope).

Duolingo's French course

I started by using Duolingo, which I learned about from founder Luis von Ahn's TED Talk on Massive-Scale Online Collaboration. When I started, I could probably inventory my French vocabulary on both hands. Bonjour, monsieur, madame, garçon, lait, etc. Duolingo gave me motivation and an on-demand tool for learning, but the downside is that it was more or less multiple choice vocabulary in very unnatural sentences. At this point, I didn't even know of the concept of the subjunctive.

Duolingo's claim of "Learn French in just 5 minutes a day" is quite the stretch. Straight-up, you're not going to become fluent with that little effort. And frankly, Duolingo alone won't get you to a point where you can explain to Colette in Normandy that you can't get in touch with your Airbnb host, and does she know how to?

Pretty quickly, I added in everyone's favorite language learning book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (in French, Harry Potter à l'École des Sorciers) because I wanted a lot more vocabulary thrown at me. Even if some of it is nonsensical or quite rare, it's a book for adolescents, and I know the plot, so it'll be easy to read, right? Turns out, when I started, I could get a good four pages before I zonked out. Which, come to think of it, doesn't say much anyway.

Truth be told, three years in and I still haven't finished that book.

I also tried Memrise, Clozemaster, Lingvist, and a number of other apps on my phone or desktop. I liked Lingvist the best, perhaps, and used it for a few months. Memrise I found to be full of mediocre decks of vocabulary, but more importantly, I kept seeing the same cards over and over and over again, meaning I wasn't being challenged enough. Or at all.

Languages are meant for communication with other humans

Apps are fine, but the whole point is to be able to free-form your own ideas and understand others' - compared with trying to translate « Etant un enfant, il est petit. » many times over. So I sought out language exchange sites and found There, I found plenty of francophones that wanted to learn English, and that helped me progress a bit. With that site, though, I found many, many more Arabic speakers that wanted my help and offered no or little French knowledge in exchange.

I next found Speaky - a site I still use almost every day - to similarly find language exchange partners. In fact, when Andrea and I went to France last year, we stayed in Versailles with one of my language exchange partners and his family. During my trip next month, I'll also meet up with a few of the people with whom I've talked.

Most of these conversations are text (though sometimes we spill over into Skype), but further, they're often very short-lived (in part due to the décalage horaire - time difference - between Seattle and France), so I have a whole lot of experience telling people I'm a software engineer and I like to climb mountains. Not so much experience going into detail about the recipes I'm trying out or where my most recent or next hike is, etc.

Talking and listening are better than reading and writing

By far, the best tool I've used for advancing is my local Meetup - first in Kirkland, now moved to Redmond. It was also the most challenging and even at times stressful - except for when you're trying to buy shampoo from the woman at the pharmacie down the road and she responds to your inquiry with, "Would it be easier if we spoke English?" Sigh. Yes, it would be easier.

I walked into the now-defunct St. James Espresso one Sunday morning to try to up my French game, barely being able to utter je m'appelle Adam, though probably not without making a good number of the members cringe at my pronunciation. Almost every Sunday I can feel my French improving. While my vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, prosody, and so on, are all still pretty lousy, nothing beats cheerful, patient, in-person speakers willing to give you immediate and helpful feedback.

I've been a member of this Meetup for two years and have gone from blank stare at total lack of comprehension to being able to understand a rather fast-talking French man describing in detail the nature of his technical work. And I was quite happy when one of my francophone friends said, "Slow down, you're talking too fast for Adam!" because, in fact, I more or less got it.

At the same time, there are people that seem to rely solely on our hebdomadaire meetup and are clearly not improving and, in fact, switch to English half the time. Just as you can't learn a language in five minutes a day, an hour or two a week isn't going to cut it either. So if you can't immerse yourself, you need something more.

A Japanese word you need to know

Just this last week, I was explaining - as best I could - the awesome spaced repetition software, Anki (Japanese for "memorization") that I use to solidly learn vocab. Gabriel Wyner's book Fluent Forever also gives great ways to use the software. Anki is free (except the official iOS app) and uses the SM2 algorithm related to the forgetting curve to show you your flash cards at the (near-)ideal moment.

But you should still listen

RFI, Issy-les-Moulineaux, France
If I can't be on the computer or in an actual conversation in some way, I try to add in as much listening time as I can in order to tune my ear to accents. (It doesn't help my listening that I have tinnitus, so I have to work extra hard to discern phonemes.) I subscribe (or have subscribed) to a number of different podcasts to learn vocabulary, slang, grammar, or just listen to interesting content. Some of these are:
  • RFI has a lot of good content, though much of it is relatively fast or advanced language
  • RFI Savoirs is specifically made for French language learners
  • RFI's Journal en Français Facile is a daily 10 minute news broadcast in easy language
  • French Your Way is an English podcast by a French woman describing rules, homonyms, vocabulary, society, auxiliary verbs, agreement, and so on.
  • The same woman also hosts French Voices - interviews in French with francophones of different stripes around the world, including some intro and outro discussions (vocab, questions) in English
  • Français Authentique is a (perhaps daily?) podcast and YouTube channel by Johan not unlike French Your Way. I stopped following Johan mostly because I couldn't keep up with the barrage of content that wasn't super exciting.
  • I had also used Coffee Break French when I started
More recently, I've started using and evaluating:


Language exchange sites suffer from the problem of splitting your time between helping others and being helped. Some people have recommend to me iTalki or similar sites where you can pay someone to be your tutor. I find this to be pretty expensive for my tastes, so I've yet to use it.

Speechling, though, appears to improve on this by having non-real-time, bite-sized phrases to record on which you're evaluated. A real francophone gives feedback to help you with your pronunciation.

Tying back into Anki, I've found Forvo to be a good site to find (and create) recordings of arbitrary words and phrases, so you can improve your pronunciation (something one of my Meetup friends reminds me of constantly that I need to improve).

Linguee is a very good dictionary between French and English. It appears to use some pretty good machine learning and web crawling to find translations on even very hard-to-find terms. Similarly, a friend pointed me toward La Coccinelle, a site with song lyric translations. I figured Linguee was more than enough, but La Coccinelle has more familiar, idiomatic, slang-laden phrases.

I'm told Language Exchange is a good way to start off, though I haven't listened to more than a couple lessons so far.